Crafting an Effective Writer

2014-08-22 — Article of 1200 words - Available in Italiano MOOC Coursera Writing

A MOOC on writing from Mt. San Jacinto College

From June to July 2014, I followed Crafting an Effective Writer a MOOC from Mt. San Jacinto College. The course goal is “to become an effective builder of sentences using the basic tools of grammar, punctuation, and writing”. It is designed for American high school and college students, but even for global community members. I recommend it to anyone who wants to become a better writer. A new session will be available in September 2014.

How the course is organized

The course is an introduction to English writing, with a focus on American English. Students “learn to use the eight parts of speech and grammar to develop the four basic sentence types into a well-organized, detailed paragraph”.

The course is organized in five units. While the first unit is an introduction on how to become a successful online learner, the others are the core of the course:

  • Unit 2: Parts of Speech
  • Unit 3: Subjects and Verbs
  • Unit 4: Clauses and Phrases
  • Unit 5: Composing and Writing

Every week you follow a study calendar, that helps you to calibrate the effort. In particular, you have to:

  • watch a few videos, where you are exposed to the key concepts of the week in a clear and concise manner
  • read some reference materials in the course wiki; the material is very well organized
  • write a personal journal; not compulsory, but recommended as it will help you with the assignments (see later)
  • take a quiz; this one counts toward the final grade
  • submit a peer reviewed assignment; even this one counts toward the final grade

While the first assignment is easy, you have to complete a proposed sentence, the others are progressively harder. In the final one you have to write a paragraph on a theme of your choice. I think that these assignments are the most important part of the course where you really learn how to write clear and concise sentences.

What I learned and why I recommend it

I’m Italian and so English is not my mother tongue. I learned English first at school, and then reading a lot of book and magazines, and watching movies and TV shows. While reading and listening (the passive use of English) are not a problem, writing and speaking (the active use) are harder, so I try to exercise whenever it is possible.

The course helped me in two ways.

First, it improved my knowledge of the English parts of speech and grammar, with clear and structured explanations and lot of examples. There was even a lesson on the writing process, with the steps to follow to write concise and well formed paragraphs.

Second, it forced me to apply what I was learning. Struggling to write, while following the instructions of the assignment and using the rules explained in the lessons, made me understand the concepts better. If you want to learn how to write, you have to write. There is no way around it.

For these two reasons, I strongly recommend to follow the course. With only a minor warning for non native English speaker, like myself. This is a basic English writing course, not a basic English course. Its main audience are American student at high school-college level. To benefit from the course you have to have a basic knowledge of the English grammar and a fairly decent vocabulary. Otherwise you will struggle a lot with the assignments. But I don’t want to discourage you: if you are in doubt about the prerequisites, follow the course and find out for yourself if it suits you. It is a great course and it is free.

Final Assignment: “Why I enjoy photography”

Here it is the paragraph I made for the final assignment, titled “Why I enjoy photography”.

I have been enjoying photography for nearly ten years. When you practice an activity for so long, it comes the time to reflect about the reasons of this sustained interest. Thinking about the “whys” can make your practice more conscious, and rekindle the enjoyment.

I am not a professional photographer. I started late, in my thirties, with a small digital camera. Then I experimented with a used single lens reflex and films; in those years serious digital photography was still expensive. Nowadays I use only digital cameras. I mainly photograph the landscape around my hometown: the sea, the country, the hills. Occasionally I photograph still-life and portraits, in the comfort of my house.

Why I started photography? I think mainly for the technical challenge. If you want to get serious about photography, and not only clicking a button and let the camera do all the work, you have to learn some photography techniques: composition, exposition, lens formats, and many other concepts. With digital photography, you have a whole lot of techniques and software to learn. I select and organize my photos. I correct and retouch them, and then I share them on social media sites. But I’m not content to watch my photos on a computer screen. I print my best photos and collect them in do-it-yourself books. You can see that there is lot to learn, and a lot of fun for a technically inclined person such me.

But photography is not only techniques. Photography is a form of art. With photography I can create something new that express my unique way to see the world, or I can aspire to doing so with time and effort. And even if I will never succeed at art creation, I can nonetheless learn about it, by studying the history of photography and the past and present masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, and many others.

It may sound funny, but photography could even be “therapeutic”. When I wander around to takes photos, at my own pace, without distraction, concentrated on the world around me, I forget the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is relaxing and energizing.

Finally, I have to say that photography is useful. But this doesn’t come as a surprise. When there is a family gathering, a travel or some special moments you want to remember, it is useful to have the skill to take a good photo, and sometime a beautiful one. And when your friends or your family needs a photo for a social media site, such Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn, it is rewarding to help them at the best of your possibilities.

I practice photography for the technical and artistic challenge, because it is a relaxing activity and it is useful in the everyday life. Photography is an activity that will hardly bore me, and I am sure I will enjoy it for years to come.